Monday, 11 April 2016


Why write ‘difficult’ music?
Any composer or musician who produces contemporary music will be familiar with negative responses.  The severity of the negative response can vary, sometimes it is an ideological debate other times it may be more physical, and both have the potential for long term consequences on the recipient. I recall witnessing a clash of opinions as a postgrad student, my supervisor had written a set of songs, the text based on intimate love letters.  The performance was open to university staff and students and a conference room was booked. The performance was good and polite applause seemed to signal the end of the evening.  Suddenly a member of the audience launched a tirade against the musical language used, I offered views that took the middle ground in the hope of calming the situation, the aggression continued for the best part of 30 minutes.
Was this aggressive reaction a response to a more complex manner of expression, or are other forces at work in such instances? Before attempting an answer the first task is to consider some aspects of simple and complex music. To simple music we may ascribe:

       ·         Clear melodic structures, often only one theme is used.
       ·         Clear contrasts, little in the way of transitions
       ·         Repetitive rhythms often based on dance patterns
       ·         Conventional orchestration and use of instruments
       ·         Familiarity of style, e.g. use of folk music, hymns, spirituals
       ·         Recollects or suggests comfortable environments, suggests group action or cooperation.
One example of simple music is Eric Coates “Calling All Workers”, I haven’t chosen this because it reminds me of my youth, it doesn’t! It is a wonderful example of music produced to motivate factory hands (it was composed in 1940 and played a significant part in the war effort) and contains the majority of the characteristics outlined above.
Calling All Workers may be heard at:
 Not all simple music is either effective or popular but when it is its appeal can be widespread. There are times when the music features some of the above characteristics and still manages to gain a wide audience. Arvo Pärt has music that speaks to specific religious groups, uses familiar elements both historical and technical but there is more to the structure than one might expect as this extract illustrates:
Pärt designed strict rules to control how the harmonic voices move with the melodic lines in his music, diktats which are as strict as serialism; ironically, given his rejection of his previous avant garde obsessions, the success of his new musical language is dependent on precisely the objectivity of thinking that serial composition demands. That austerity of process makes Pärt's tintinnabulation a new use of tonality, even a new kind of tonality, and it explains why his music sounds simultaneously ancient and modern… (Tom Service – The Guardian 18.06.2012).
For the sake of balance difficult music may feature some of the following:
·         Complex harmony and rhythm
      ·         Patterns of repetition are less obvious
      ·         Irregular phrasing
      ·         Unconventional tuning / scales
      ·         Unconventional approaches to text  
      ·         Dealing with serious issues such as mortality, psychological perception etc.
      ·         Reduction or distortion of human characteristics
The issue of patterns of repetition have been given psychological scrutiny, as the following extract shows:
"Much of what the brain does is to anticipate the future. Predicting what happens next has obvious survival value, and brains are remarkably adept at anticipating events.  We measured the predictability of tone sequences in music by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern and found the successive pitches were less predictable than random tone sequences. For listeners, this means that, every time you try to predict what happens next, you fail. The result is an overwhelming feeling of confusion, and the constant failures to anticipate what will happen next means that there is no pleasure from accurate prediction." Professor David Huron
The section “less predictable than random tone sequences” is rather worrying and I suggest that his subjects were unfamiliar with atonal music, and that the randomly produced tone sequences were less than random.  However the general point is made about predictable events, and would make a case for the popularity of minimalism over other contemporary styles.
Mentioning minimalism brings us back to the musical arguments which take place between musicians who hold to different preferences! Group membership is a powerful motivating factor on our ego, and here is the most interesting factor the closer the groups are to each other the stronger the conflict that arises.
This statement by Dean Burnett makes the matter clear:
Our brain makes us hostile to those who threaten the group, even if it is a trivial matter.
(The Idiot Brain).
There is no need to refer to countless skirmishes between football supporters, we can turn to the followers of Wagner and Brahms:
Once Brahms was set up as Wagner's adversary, he drew vilification or adoration according to allegiance. Originally an ardent Wagnerite, the conductor Hans von Bulow did a complete volte-face, hailing Wagner's rival as “the greatest, the most exalted of composers”. To the master lieder-writer Hugo Wolf, however, Brahms was “only a relic from primeval ages”. Non-Germans were equally passionate. Tchaikovsky scorned Brahms as “a giftless bastard”, while Elgar declared that “the unvarying breadth and grandeur of his ideas marks him out as the true successor of Beethoven.”
(Extract from the Economist http://www.economist.com/node/367351)
It may be that we now have some idea as to why passions arise over different styles of music, and why certain types of music are more difficult to digest. We may write music to belong to a particular group and defend our position because of the choice we made. To return to Dean Burnett:
Humans don’t just want to be a part of a group, they want a high ranking role in it.
Does the choice of belonging to a smaller group increase our opportunity for becoming the leader or holding a high ranking position? Why else do we turn our backs on popularity, wealth and honours by choosing to write complex music when we have all the skills to write a simple song? After all I am no less good-looking than the members of One Direction, whose Midnight Memories has a present count of 112,459,865 views.
Perhaps my supervisor’s critic was only trying to be helpful.